Third sector threatened with eviction

The papers have been full of retrospective musings on the past decade, as though its events can somehow be tied up with a pretty bow and ring-fenced from the more important business that lies ahead.

Those of us concerned about the global divide have no need to replay the tape. Almost every day of my working life I am reminded of the millennium through the banal phrasing of the Development Goals. Dismal progress in the reduction of extreme poverty, China excepted, will embolden those who preach that smart branding makes a difference, even in social enterprise.

For environmentalists too, the decade’s disappointments are thrust in our face. Not one of the strategies now routinely paraded for the fight against climate change – nuclear energy, carbon dioxide sequestration, climate adaptation and a two degree tolerance for warming – would have been acceptable to the mainstream campaigners of ten years ago.

Worst of all are the daily reminders that the flawed economic model forged in the Thatcher/Reagan era has survived its Armageddon without a scratch. Imagine that a banking collapse on this scale had happened in the 1970s, the era of powerful trade union movements in Europe and North America. They would have plunged the dagger of radical reform up to the hilt, mindful perhaps of the exhortation of the South African poet, Arthur Nortje, dating from that era:

for some of us must storm the castles
some define the happening

Today’s successors of the trade unions in political influence, the international development and environmental campaign groups, didn’t even possess a dagger when the moment came.

All those years of debunking economic growth as a force for inequality and destruction of the planet, all those visionary mission statements promising a fairer world – so inspiring on paper and yet so paralysed with stage fright when the curtain raised in those weeks either side of new year 2009.

The perspective of global poverty and sustainable development was unforgivably absent from the political discourse of the crisis. That failure leaves our movement poised on the slippery slope to irrelevance.

I only hope that those pictures of a deserted Bella Center after the infamous eviction of NGOs during the closing days of the Copenhagen conference do not acquire painful symbolism.

It’s good timing that two key agency appointments have recently been announced. Kumi Naidoo and Salil Shetty take over as the respective heads of Greenpeace International and Amnesty International. As both have recently led poverty reduction campaigns, there’s a better chance that activists can unite on the really big issues rather than find themselves despatched along the separate paths of human rights, poverty and the environment.

We face our own share of tough questions at OneWorld. The Financial Times reported last week that “a 1,000 gigabyte storage drive, which would have cost $1 million at the start of the 1990s, can now be had for $100.” Why have the benefits of the revolution in communications not yet narrowed the global divide, as anticipated in our mission statement?

The reasons are of course complex and much will depend on the performance of pro-poor applications of mobile phone technology. OneWorld UK has built a strong niche in this field in Africa. And our OneClimate team enjoyed good feedback for their live interactive video broadcasts from the Copenhagen conference, fortunately being allowed to continue work even as so many other groups were banished.

The trouble with a strategy which demands innovation is that you never know what’s going to work well, or what new technology lies in store to condemn your ideas to the digital scrapheap. But there’s always an element of charm in the uncertainty, as understood by another South African, Dennis Brutus, who died last week:

Sometimes a mesh of ideas
webs the entranced mind…


this article was first published by OneWorld UK